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Contenders begin second half with eyes on prize

by Jason Coskrey

While the NPB All-Star Series doesn’t land exactly at the midpoint of the season it splits the year in two very well symbolically if not mathematically. No matter how you slice it, the regular season resumed on Monday, signaling the start of a two month race to the finish line.

Because of the premium NPB’s playoff system places on winning a league pennant — a first-stage bye in the Climax Series and an automatic 1-0 lead in the final stage, a six-game series hosted entirely by the first-place team — it’s hard to downplay the importance of the season’s prolonged denouement.

While there’s time for strange things to happen, the first half did a decent job of setting the stage for the pennant races in the Central and Pacific Leagues.

In the CL, the Yomiuri Giants haven’t come close to hitting their peak, but began the second half 3½ games clear in first place almost as if on muscle memory alone. They could also get a lot better very quickly.

First of all, Yomiuri’s beleaguered rotation, which can be found on the back of Tomoyuki Sugano (9-5, 2.15 ERA), could get a boost from both Toshiya Sugiuchi beginning to look like himself again and the return of injured pitchers Tetsuya Utsumi and Hirokazu Sawamura.

The Kyojin also have Yoshiyuki Kamei’s bat back, and there’s still a chance some of their under-performing stars, like Shinnosuke Abe, all round into form at the same time, which could spell trouble for the other five CL teams.

The Hanshin Tigers and Hiroshima Carp are in the best position to challenge Yomiuri’s claim to the throne.

Hanshin started the year well, fell into a hole, then played its way back into the race by going 11-2 ahead of the All-Star break. The streaking Tigers have earned their stripes at the plate lately hitting .290 in this month but have to hope the break hasn’t taken some of the wind out of their sails.

The ‘Road Trip of Death’ is also on the horizon. The Tigers will face the Chunichi Dragons at home on Aug. 3 and won’t see the friendly confines of Koshien Stadium again until the 29th of the month, though they’ll play a pair of series at Osaka Dome, while the National High School Baseball Tournament is taking place. The trip isn’t nearly as grueling as in the past, but for a sport where routine can play an important role it can still be tough to manage.

The Carp meanwhile have the league’s most formidable hitter, Brad Eldred, who entered the break hitting .290 with 29 home runs and 80 RBIs, and talent like Ryosuke Kikuchi and Yoshihiro Maru surrounding him in an offense that’s been clicking for the most part.

The Carp have struggled in recent weeks, and regaining their touch on the mound will be vital to the team’s chances. Kenta Maeda has gotten better as the season has gone along, but the rest of the rotation has hit a slight rough patch, especially rookie Daichi Osera. Getting the most out of Osera as well as Aren Kurisato, Yusuke Nomura and veteran Bryan Bullington is essential to Hiroshima’s hope of winning the pennant for the first time since 1991.

The Chunichi Dragons don’t look like much of a threat to win the pennant. If one of the top three falters, however, the Dragons could take advantage and slip into the Climax Series through the back door. The Yokohama BayStars and Tokyo Yakult Swallows look destined to duke it out for fifth place, again.

The Orix Buffaloes were a surprise package at the top of the Pacific League, which is shaping up to be a two-team race for the all-important top spot.

The Buffaloes have had pitching the last few years, but Wily Mo Pena is sending balls into orbit as he and his PL-best 52 RBIs help power an offense that’s second in the league in runs scored with 338. It also helps to have Yoshio Itoi ticking almost every column of the box score, while hitting .354 with 11 home runs, 49 RBIs a .978 OPS and 25 stolen bases in the first half.

Only the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks have scored more runs in the PL, but no team has given up fewer than Orix, which has a dynamic trio of pitchers (Chihiro Kaneko, Yuki Nishi and Brandon Dickson) heading the rotation and a terrific group of arms in the bullpen.

Softbank’s offense is a beast, as usual, leading Japan with 379 runs scored. They’re not too shabby on the mound either, fielding the PL’s second-best team ERA (3.29) in the first half, a good bullpen and NPB’s top closer, Dan Sarfate.

The rest of the PL is probably playing for third barring a collapse at the top.

The first half set the stage and a gaggle of contenders stepped to the forefront. Now that the season is back on, what could be a frantic race to the finish can begin.